When Do I Write a Cover Letter?

Not always. This may seem shocking to some, but a cover letter is no longer expected with every application. In fact, many companies have removed the ability to submit a cover letter in their online application systems. But, here is what you need to know about when to write a cover letter.

What is a Cover Letter

It is important to first understand what a cover letter is before determining when it should be used. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the phrase "Cover Letter" as

a letter that is sent with something to explain the reason for it or to give more information about it

This simple definition says a lot about what the letter is not - it is not a letter repeating the contents. Instead, the cover letter is to EXPLAIN why you are sending it or to GIVE MORE information about the contents. In the case of a job application, this would be to explain the contents of your resume as it relates to the position that you are applying to.  

When It is Required

The easiest answer to this question about when to submit a cover letter is when it is required by the particular job. In fact, this requirement can show up in the job description or as a required field in the online application. In many cases, the required cover letter will also include specific questions or information that the company wants to see in the cover letter.

You must submit a cover letter when it is required. You must also follow the directions for the cover letter when submitting it. Failure to do so may prevent you from completing the application or having your application reviewed. Many employers will add specific requirements to their cover letters or applications to pre-screen applicants. This could be to test the person's real interest in the position or to evaluate their ability to follow the directions. Whatever the reason, the requirement to submit the cover letter with any information requested will be necessary to be considered for the job.

When It is Optional

Another time when you can submit a cover letter is when the cover letter is optional. This is not a requirement to completing the application. The option for a cover letter can show up in a couple of different ways. First, there may be no mention of cover letters in the job description, but there may be an optional field to attach additional documents or an optional field to copy/paste a cover letter.

You can choose to submit a cover letter if there is a way to do so. Many people will use this opportunity to submit the optional cover letter to cover something that they can't address on the resume or to tell their story about why they are applying. Electing not to submit the cover letter is not always viewed negatively. In fact, you may not always have the option to submit a cover letter. So, before spending time on a cover letter, make sure you check to see if there is actually a field to upload one when applying online.

When Submitting by Email

The other time when you should submit a cover letter is when you are sending the application by email. The email you send to the person receiving the application will be, by definition, a cover letter. However, an email transmitting your resume should be much, much shorter than the typical cover letter. There is a real person that is getting this email and they won't want to read a lot of content in an email message. Instead, the best practice for an email transmission of your resume is no more than 3 - 5 sentences. Keep the message to the point to tell the person why you are sending the email, why you are interested, and why you are a good fit.

Sometimes, it makes sense to also attach a lengthier cover letter as an additional attachment to the email transmitting the resume. This could be because it is required by the job description or because you have more to say and want to share the information with the people making the hiring decision. Remember, the person receiving the email is not always the person who will make the hiring decision. They may be an assistant to the hiring manager or they may be the person serving as the HR person for the team or department. So, it may make sense to include additional information in the form of an attachment for the person to print and share with the hiring committee. However, be careful with how much you attach to the email as people won't always opt to download all of the attachments.

When Not to Write A Cover Letter

There are also times when you should not write a cover letter. The most obvious times are when there is no way to submit the cover letter. Companies are increasingly removing this field from their online application systems. They do this because they don't want a cover letter (or because the system hasn't been set up to allow it). In that case, you are simply wasting your time if you try to write a cover letter.

You should also not send a cover letter if it is completely generic. A generic cover letter will easily be spotted by the recruiter (if they read it) and can result in your application being rejected. Instead, if you are going to send a cover letter make sure that you take the time to do it right. As noted above, the definition of the cover letter is to explain the reason for sending the application or to give additional information. So, if you aren't building a cover letter that meets the definition of a cover letter, then you should simply not send the cover letter.

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